Thursday, December 14, 2000

Holiday Jazz 2000: ’Tis the season to be wary

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.14.00

[Web master’s note: Northern California film critic Derrick Bang — the eldest, youngest and only son of this site’s jazz guru, Ric Bang — has surveyed the holiday jazz scene since the late 1990s, with lengthy columns that just keep growing.]

I got word, a month back, that music labels would be considerably more cautious with holiday releases this year, because sales were “flat” in 1999. No surprise, really; after enjoying a level of modest popularity and producing smallish — but reliable — profits for several decades, seasonal releases exploded in 1998 and ’99. Everybody had to release a holiday album, and of course many didn’t find the listeners they deserved.

That’s what happens when the market gets flooded: We all drown, artist and fan alike.

This year’s seasonal music releases are fewer and further between, and that’s particularly true of holiday jazz, where a couple of labels have adopted the tactic employed by the U.S. Postal Service, which simply recycled last year’s reindeer stamps.

Thus, Concord has resurrected two 1997 releases, spruced ’em up with new cover art and new titles, and released them anew.

I call that pretty damn sneaky.

In fairness, both are worth adding to your library; just make sure you don’t already own them.

Piano fans can’t do better than Dave McKenna’s Christmas Party: Holiday Piano Spiked with Swing (Concord CCD 4923-2, previously issued as Christmas Ivory, CCD-4772-2), an ambitious, one-man collection of superb solo work: blues, stride, swing rag and anything else the then-67-year-old acoustic phenomenon set his mind to. It’s a grand series of cuts by a guy who knows he doesn’t need to impress listeners with needless flash; his renditions of “Silver Bells’’ and “Silent Night,’’ in particular, are poignant in their quiet clarity.

But this isn’t a sedate album by any means; McKenna swings and boogies his way through plenty of up-tempo covers of everything from “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” to “Sleigh Ride,” while including a perky original dubbed “An Eggnog, Some Mistletoe and You.” Good stuff.

Listeners looking for the perfect seasonal CD to accompany a romantic Christmas at home should check out Scott Hamilton’s Late Night Christmas Eve (Concord CCD-4922-2, previously issued as Christmas Love Song, CCD-4771-2). Although the presence of the London String Ensemble may alienate jazz purists, Hamilton’s soft tenor saxophone riffs are easy on the ears; you won’t find better holiday “date tunes.’’

Hamilton is joined by a quartet comprised of pianist Alan Broadbent, bassist Dave Green, guitarist Dave Cliff and drummer Alan Ganley. When the strings don’t intrude, these guys get down pretty nicely. Mostly, though, you’ll want to pop this one in the player while enjoying a crackling fire with your favorite honey-bunny.

Capitol/Blue Note also brought back a golden oldie: Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas (Capitol Jazz 7243-5-27674-2-7). Originally released in 1967, this venerable classic has been remastered in stereo for the very first time, and the results are absolutely exquisite ... as one would expect from the First Lady of Jazz.

Just one problem: Despite the “Capitol Jazz” emblem, and despite the weight of Fitzgerald’s long career, this album ain’t jazz.

Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas is a spiritual release, its content strongly reminiscent of what you’d hear in a church, complete with background choir. The arrangements are strictly traditional, the playlist restricted to the hymnal side of Christmas music: “O Holy Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “Sleep, My Little Jesus” and a dozen others.

While everything is gorgeous, and sounds even better remastered, the CD is inappropriately masquerading as a jazz release. If you want to hear classic Ella, pick up Wishes You a Swinging Christmas, on the Verve label.

OK, enough on the re-releases; what about the new stuff?

Well ... I found three.

The pick of the litter is A Jazz Piano Christmas (NPR Classics, NPR CD 0013), composed of 17 smashing solo piano covers by the likes of Renee Rosnes, Mulgrew Miller, Ramsey Lewis, Cedar Walton and 13 other respected figures, new and old, in the jazz piano world. The album opens with Dick Hyman’s exceptional stride/ragtime version of “Deck the Halls,” and doesn’t let up.

All these cuts originally were broadcast on various installments of National Public Radio’s Jazz Piano Christmas, generally heard on Dec. 24 and 25, and carried in this area by our own KXJZ 88.9 FM. Unless you recorded those radio shows, you’ve had no other way of preserving a decade’s worth of great Christmas jazz.

Despite the name, A Jazz Piano Christmas actually is the second such compilation; sadly, the first has gone out of print. Oddly, this new one repeats two cuts from its predecessor, but the other 15 appear on CD for the first time.

You may have trouble finding the blamed thing, though; an extensive search through various Davis shops revealed only one copy, at Borders ... and that one’s now in my library.

A rather unique contribution comes from Cyrus Chestnut, who has done the practically unprecedented, by covering all of Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack — from the “Peanuts” themes (“Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Is Coming”) to the holiday standards (“The Christmas Song,” “What Child Is This” and so forth) that Guaraldi and his trio gave such a distinctive polish back in 1965 — in Cyrus Chestnut & Friends: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic 2A-83366).

The results are intriguing. Chestnut’s approach to the piano is quite spiritual; his interpretations of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “My Little Drum” (a riff on “Little Drummer Boy”) are slow, somber and absolutely gorgeous. He’s equally adept at the up-tempo stuff; his covers of “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmas Is Coming” are marvelous.

But some of the stylistic choices are puzzling. I’m no fan of jazz harmonica, and it’s absolutely not the instrument of choice for “Skating”; a harmonica simply does not say “ice skating” to me.

Perhaps worse, the otherwise tasty vibes used in “What Child Is This” are obscured by the Manhattan Transfer’s gawpy background la-la-la punctuations, which sound more like something hijacked from a Lawrence Welk disc.

Finally, I’m of two minds regarding Crystal Lewis’ Holiday (Metro One, 06949-0787-2). Her back-up trio — Alan Pasqua, piano ; Peter Erskine, drums; and Dave Carpenter, bass — is great, and if you’re not tapping toes or snapping fingers to their opening riffs on the album’s first cut, “Joy to the World” ... well, then you’re dead.

Indeed, every time Lewis steps back to let the instrumentalists take over, the results are sublime.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Lewis herself.

To be as diplomatic as possible, her voice is unpolished. She doesn’t sound exactly bad, merely under-developed. Imagine an untrained Cyndi Lauper, with more swing but without the enthusiasm. Lewis holds her own with up-tempo numbers such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” where rhythm conceals a lot; she’s less successful with slower numbers, such as “What Child Is This” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” on which her voice cracks a few times.

Lewis comes to us from the Christian music genre — 1997’s Beauty for Ashes made a minor splash — where enthusiastic fans apparently are more tolerant of her limited abilities. There’s much to enjoy in Holiday — most of the grand stuff coming from Pasqua, Erskine and Carpenter — but I find myself wincing and apologizing to anybody else in the room, whenever Lewis’ voice heads in an unexpected direction.

And, barring late arrivals, that would appear to be that.

But a year that brings us even one great disc — A Jazz Piano Christmas fits that bill — is by no means a failure. Until recently, one notable release in the holiday jazz sub-genre was all I could hope for, and I’ll be perfectly content if we head back to those calmer waters.

Frankly, I vastly prefer the one “keeper” among this year’s three new releases, to the dozen-plus 1999 discs that yielded nothing memorable.

So color me happy, Santa ... for A Jazz Piano Christmas, and for the fact that I didn’t have to suffer through another Kenny G release.

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